what i watched

Geezer Cinema: Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022). I found the choices at the local theater to be uninspiring, so I opted for an in-home Geezer movie this week. Kimi has the feel of a pandemic movie, for good reason ... it was made during the pandemic, and it takes place during the pandemic. The character played by Zoë Kravitz suffers from agoraphobia, and you get the feeling the quarantine, while making it easier for her to just stay at home, nonetheless didn't exactly help her condition. Kravitz is great in the role, emotionally stunted in some ways and yet she believable rises to the occasion in the climax. There are a lot of That Guys (Jaime Camil and Jacob Vargas, Rita Wilson, and Robin Givens, who even though I knew she was in it I forgot to notice her). As he often does, Soderbergh does his own cinematography and editing using pseudonyms. Soderbergh is the King of Geezer Cinema for some reason. We watched Contagion back when we first started staying at home during the pandemic, and since then we've seen Logan Lucky, Haywire, and No Sudden Move, so Kimi makes #5. I usually like his movies (he is #51 on my most recent list of top directors), and my wife seems to share my enjoyment ... she has picked three of the five Geezer movies we've watched.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

Revisiting the 9s: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005). [This is the ninth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

When Murderball came out, I wrote:

The film makers don't always seem to trust their material (wheelchair rugby played by macho quadriplegics) ... the movie gives off a feeling of manufactured drama at times. But the stories of the athletes, and the (infrequent for a sports film) action-packed scenes of what is best described as bumper cars played by Mad Max refugees, tip the scales towards excellence. It's also interesting that real-life events conspire to prevent some of the more predictable drama ... I'm trying to avoid spoilers here ... perhaps that's why the film makers try to hype up other dramatic aspects of the narrative. But it works ... when things don't always turn out "right," the film feels far more "real" than when the hype takes over.

I don't have much to add after a second viewing 15 or so years after the fact. The main characters in the film capture our attention, and the film is engrossing to the extent that we care what happens to these people. But one thing about my reluctance to give the highest rating to more recent films is that this doesn't seem to hold for documentaries. If I am taken with a documentary, I'll go all the way with a rating (to cite a recent example, Summer of Soul). I think I may have rated Murderball a bit too highly at the time, and even then, I only handed out a 9/10. Now? I'm feeling an 8/10 coming up.


revisiting the 9s/film fatales: control room (jehane noujaim, 2004)

[This is the eighth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Apparently I never wrote about Control Room when I first saw it, so this is a chance not only to re-evaluate it but offer a few words, as well. Jehane Noujaim gave us one of the greatest documentaries of recent years, The Square, which began with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and was so locked into the moment that, after it won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim continued to edit it to reflect more recent events.

Control Room is a cinéma vérité film that documents the work of Al Jazeera covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was filmed by Noujaim and Hani Salama, and offers the best of what cinéma vérité can offer. Of course, there are those who point to the editing process in cinéma vérité films as a way to construct reality while presenting it as unconstructed. In Control Room, there are parallel versions of this. Not only has the film been criticized for being biased, Al Jazeera itself is subject to the same criticisms. But, as one person says in the film, comparing Al Jazeera and mainstream U.S. news media, "This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage". And Noujaim herself has said of the film, "I am not saying it is the truth, but it is our truth".

One of the more interesting characters in the film is Marine Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a spokesperson for the military in Iraq. Like all people in his position, he offers the kind of spin that his bosses want to hear, but he also comes across as genuinely wanting to understand Al Jazeera and the Arab perspective. Rushing later left the Corps and joined Al Jazeera English.

A second viewing of Control Room didn't convince me I'd underrated a classic, but it's not an insult to say it just misses being as great as The Square.


geezer cinema/african-american directors series: inside man (spike lee, 2006)

[This is the seventh in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

In 2007, I wrote:

Denzel Washington is the perfect combination of movie star and actor (the two don't have to go together), Jodie Foster nails her few scenes, the supporting cast is fascinating … there's a lot to like here. It's also an intelligent movie, or perhaps more accurately, it assumes an intelligent audience....

Inside Man is ... smart and stylish, but with characters who break free of the stereotypes that informed their creation.... The characters in Inside Man are ... closer to real human beings, with all of the quirky randomness that implies.

I also went on a rather lengthy discussion of Clive Owen in the movie that I suspect is more interesting to me than to anyone else. Suffice to say that Owen is also strong here. To some extent, I think critics liked Inside Man in part because it wasn't a typical Spike Lee movie ... he didn't write the script, and he doesn't usually do this kind of genre piece. It's as if Spike decided to show people that yes, he is that good, he can crank these out with the best of them. Inside Man is a terrific heist movie with great characterizations. Yet I can't see myself raising its rating to the Big 10. Maybe I can't go the extra step for a genre picture that is for the most part only a genre picture. (On the other hand, my dissertation was on hard-boiled detectives ... it's not like I don't appreciate genre work.)


african-american directors series/revisiting the 9s: moonlight (barry jenkins, 2016)

[This is the sixth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Back in 2018, I wrote:

The film is seamless as it progresses through three different periods in a young man's life, with the three actors portraying the boy/man clicking on an emotional level, no matter whether they look like the same person. Like the best coming-of-age stories, Moonlight is passionately specific in its story yet remarkably universal in its appeal. It feels true to the life of a black boy gradually discovering his gayness, but the insights into his life let everyone in the audience into the story. Complex, but made with such confidence that it never confuses. Great acting across the board, as well. #89 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Well, some one out there has changed their opinion of Moonlight: it has risen on the 21st-century list from #89 to #75 to #28 and now to #22. I haven't really changed my opinion. I still found Moonlight to have universal appeal, with great acting. But I never felt like I was watching something I had underrated before. I have great regard for Moonlight, placing it at #1 on my list of 2016 films, ahead of other excellent movies like I Am Not Your Negro, The Handmaiden, and 20th Century Women. Back then, I didn't know Mahershala Ali. Since then, he has won two Oscars, one for his work in Moonlight. Naomie Harris gave her usual fine performance.

I'm not trying to belittle the accomplishments of Moonlight. But it still falls just short of 10/10 for me. And if this doesn't demonstrate how silly ratings are, I don't know what does.


african-american directors series/revisiting the 9s: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

[This is the fifth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Back in 2018, I wrote:

I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.

The time around, the loss of Chadwick Boseman is deeply felt ... it's impossible not to see T'Challa and ignore the fact that Boseman was working so hard even as he knew he had cancer. Hindsight influences how we see the past, and in the final scenes of Black Panther, I thought he looked gaunt. But I didn't notice back in 2018, and I suspect I imagined it in 2022. Nonetheless, Boseman was suffering during the production of the film, and while that in itself isn't a guarantee of a great performance, the fact that Boseman gave a great performance while he had cancer is simply remarkable. Watching this time, I remained extremely impressed by Michael B. Jordan ... when am I not impressed by him? But I wouldn't say now that he was the dominant actor in the movie. In fact, it's a great thing we have, to see two dynamic performers going up against each other like Jordan and Boseman do here. I can't say it was robbery that Boseman didn't get the Best Actor Oscar ... oddly, I still haven't seen any of the five nominees. Nor have I yet seen any of the Supporting Actor nominees, so while I think Jordan was worthy, I can't make the proper comparisons.

I should note that I watched something of a special version this time. Originally, we saw it in IMAX in a theater. Recently, Disney Plus has begun offering a handful of Marvel films in what they call "IMAX Enhanced". Essentially, it changes the aspect ratio to match that of IMAX. In the case of Black Panther, this isn't true for the entire movie, but rather for specific scenes. The transition was seamless ... in fact, I barely noticed, which may or may not be an argument in its favor.

Black Panther remains the best of the Marvel movies. Of the ones that have been released since then, only Shang-Chi comes close. But, as good as it is, I don't think it quite makes it to the pantheon of greatest films. I am sticking with 9/10 in this case.


revisiting the 9s: spirited away (hayao miyazaki, 2001)

[This is the fourth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Back in 2003, I wrote:

I'm forever searching for films that reflect what I think of as the world of Philip K. Dick novels. Movies based on Dick books rarely meet my approval, but once in awhile, some other picture will find the psychedelic spirit of Dick's best work. You don't expect to find it in a "children's movie," for sure, but I take what I can get. There are a bunch of astonishing creatures in Spirited Away, and most of them would make sense as intergalactic beings from a PKD novel. My favorites were the little soot thingies ... that's what they are, soot with arms and legs ... but there's plenty more where that came from.

Over the past month on holiday, I re-read five Philip K. Dick novels (he's my go-to writer on trips, because I have so many of his books on my Kindle). Re-watching Spirited Away in that context, locked in as I was to the Dick spirit, meant I easily understood my long-ago comparison of the movie to Dick. But I also appreciated the way Miyazaki explores his own kind of weirdness. Spirited Away strikes me as even more of a fantasy than is usual for the master. Certainly Miyazaki works within the fantasy genre. But where something like My Neighbor Totoro places its characters in a seemingly ordinary home, from which they venture out into a magical forest, in Spirited Away, the family is on their way to their new home, but they don't make it. The magic and fantasy begins right from the start, as the parents turn into pigs. There isn't a lot to hold onto in Spirited Away, if you want at least a grasp of the "real world".

I complained about Holy Motors being unapproachable ... you have to accept the vision of Leos Carax, because that's all there is. Spirited Away is equally demanding of the audience ... without Miyazaki's vision, all you have is pretty pictures (and Holy Motors has a lot of pretty pictures, too). But Miyazaki invites us into his vision. He welcomes an audience, where Carax gives the impression that he doesn't care about that audience. The result is that I resisted Holy Motors, but I embraced Spirited Away completely.

I should note that I watched the English dub this time, if that makes a difference. I didn't recognize any of the famous voices, which means they did a good job. As for the "revisiting the 9s" angle, I have no idea why I didn't give this movie my highest rating back in 2003. Perhaps I really do have some subconscious inability to fully appreciate movies that aren't 50 years old. Spirited Away gets a 10/10. It is my favorite Ghibli movie after Princess Mononoke. #6 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #159 on the all-time list. Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature.

[Letterboxd list of Studio Ghibli movies I have seen]


revisiting the 9s: before sunset (richard linklater, 2004)

[This is the third in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I last wrote about Before Sunset in 2011, when I said that since it had stood the test of time, I was raising my rating from 8 to 9. Before Midnight had not yet come out, but later, when I saw that third film in the thus-far trilogy, I felt it was even better than the first two. Part of that was the accumulated experience of the three, and I think in a rating sense that I found this perhaps too attractive ... if Midnight was a 10, and Sunrise was an 8, then clearly Sunset was a 9. There is a certain logic to this, although it also shows the silliness involved in ratings movies at all. I think I'd give the trilogy a 10, even if the average rating for the three is 9.

And seeing Before Sunset for a third time, I'm still content with that 9 rating. There is something to be said for that accumulation. I realize that if they ever make a fourth film in the series, my rating system will break because I can't give the new movie an 11.

I recently updated a Letterboxd list that ranked directors by the ratings I gave their movies. Richard Linklater is #36 on that list, between William Wyler and Michael Haneke. (In an earlier version he was #35 ... Wyler has since passed him, although I'm not sure why.)

My earlier reviews of Before Sunset covered most of what I thought. I did make a couple of new-to-me observations this time. The Before series is rather like a fictional version of the Up series, documentaries which looked at the same people in 7-year increments. In the Before movies, we catch up with Celine and Jesse every nine years, but of course, they aren't real people, so Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke can play with the characters' biographies in ways you can't do in a documentary. Also, there is a scene that seems to foreshadow Before Midnight, although obviously this wasn't actually happening since that movie hadn't even been planned when Sunset was made.

In terms of accumulated power, the greatest scene in all three movies is the long stretch near the end of Before Midnight, when the two, married by that point, have a terrible fight that puts everything on the table. Watching Sunset again, I saw premonitions of that scene in this one.

I would welcome a fourth installment, although it's probably too late to make the usual nine-year deadline. There is talk of another sequel, but the possibility seems mixed. Even if the fourth film never happens, the Before trilogy stands as a great achievement. Throw in Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, and Boyhood, and you see why I rate Linklater so highly.


revisiting the 9s: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

[This is the second in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

The second movie in the series is Stories We Tell, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2017. At that time, I wrote:

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

(I notice that back in 2017, Stories We Tell was #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. It is currently at #116, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

One way Polley avoids being pretentious is by sneaking her methods into the film. The first time I watched it, I missed Polley's "trick" entirely until the closing credits. It's such an audacious move that everyone who writes about Stories We Tell must apologize for the spoilers they are about to offer, arguing that you can't talk about the movie without talking about the spoilers. This is an example of how extraordinary the movie is, for it's hard to think of a documentary that needs spoiler warnings. It's not a spoiler to say that someone gets killed at Altamont during Gimme Shelter, and while the audience for Stories We Tell might not know specifics about the lives of Polley and her family, you could look at Wikipedia to find out "what happened". The spoiler is in how Polley tells the story. (And this is as good a place as any to mention Michael Munn, the film's editor, who is exemplary in his work here.)

This is crucial. As at least one person asks, why would anyone be interested in the story of our family? The people have led interesting lives, the way all of us lead interesting lives. But Polley doesn't really make us interested in her family as much as she makes us interested in her "smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary". There is a meta theme here ... Polley makes a documentary that examines making a documentary. Where someone like Frederick Wiseman essentially hides what he is doing with his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Polley draws attention to her methods. Which makes the one big secret to her film all the more surprising, because the movie seems transparent, but it wasn't, at least not completely. And Polley doesn't use her "trick" to draw attention to her brilliant film making, she uses it to further emphasize the theme of family memories.

In an interview with Kate Erbland in 2019, Polley admits she is surprised at how resonant Stories We Tell is for so many people. What feels like a smartly planned approach turns out to been have something less controlled:

The fact that anyone saw a cohesive film in there is still amazing to me.... For me, the legacy is that anyone thought it was an actual movie, as opposed to just a complete mess that I never cleaned up.... At no point did I feel like I knew what I was doing when I was making it. It just felt like such a mess, it felt really unpleasant.

Polley accomplishes so much with Stories We Tell that it ends up being a perfect candidate for "Revisiting the 9s". Although as noted, I have never shied away from giving my highest rating to recent documentaries, I held back a bit with Stories We Tell, probably because Polley's accomplishments felt "un-documentary" enough that I treated it like just another great art film. Which it is. It's also a great documentary. It's a great film. I should have given it a "10" from the start.


revisiting the 9s: l.a. confidential (curtis hanson, 1997)

With this post, I begin a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell. The first movie in this series will be L.A. Confidential, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2009. At that time, I wrote:

When I noticed that I had long ago give this movie a rating of 9 on a scale of 10, I was a bit surprised … I remembered liking it, but not THAT much. Well, I just watched it again, and it really is that good. Russell Crowe is a very scary force of nature in this one, and it’s easy to forget now that Americans didn't know anything about him at the time. Brutal, never boring, with characters who gradually emerge with more depth, not just to serve the plot but because the movie is interested in character.

(I notice that back in 2009, L.A. Confidential was #486 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It is currently at #726, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

L.A. Confidential turns out to be the perfect film for me to examine my "9-not-10" tendencies. Because, as I said 12 years ago, "it really is that good". Looking back, I see that I actually have given a 10 rating to one movie from 1997: Princess Mononoke, my favorite movie from one of my favorite film makers. That sets a pretty high standard, and while the two films are of completely different genres, one question I can try to answer is simple: do I think L.A. Confidential is as good as Princess Mononoke, or is it more on the level of other 9-of-10 films from 1997 (Jackie Brown, the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement)? I suspect that it's more to the point of this project to ask if I think L.A. Confidential is as good as, say, The Big Sleep, another noirish film set in Los Angeles that was released in 1946, is one of my very favorite movies, and one that I gave a rating of 10 out of 10. In other words, is the only reason I give a 10 to The Big Sleep and a 9 to L.A. Confidential that one came out before I was born and one came out 24 years ago?

I appreciate how trivial this is. I'm convinced more than ever that ratings systems are more flawed than perfect. But without over-stating the importance of 9 vs. 10, the reason I want to try this project is precisely to answer that question about when I am willing to say, "this movie is as good as it gets". It's not about being "fair" to movies like L.A. Confidential or Jackie Brown if I give them a 9. But I do want to examine the process whereby I mostly call a movie "as good as it gets" if it's an older picture. When I was a grad student, I detested the notion that age defined greatness, but it seems to have worn off on me nonetheless.

So ... after seeing it (at least) three times, am I ready to state that L.A. Confidential is as good as it gets?

I think so. It presents an image of toxic masculinity that emphasizes the toxic ... eventually we root for Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), but they are very unlikeable. (Kevin Spacey, who rounds out the three main male characters, is sleazy in a different way.) Crowe gives a performance for the ages; it's no surprise he got Best Actor Oscar nominations three years in a row starting in 2000 (winning once). He looks like Bud White: a blockheaded muscleman. And everyone treats him like one, not to mention he thinks of himself in that way. But there is always something in Crowe's eyes that lets you know there's something beneath the surface, and when Kim Basinger's Lynn Bracken falls for him, you believe her when she says she sees beneath the bravado. Pearce was arguably better known than Crowe in the States at the time for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He plays the intellectual, prissy cop ... he wears glasses and is regularly reminded by his colleagues to "lose the glasses", because they emphasize his lack of toxicity. Of course, Ed Exley turns out to be just as toxic as everyone else. What's funny is, Pearce was once a bodybuilder (winning Junior Mr. Victoria), and he likely could crush any of the other actors, but he keeps his shirt (and glasses) on and presents as the opposite of a bodybuilding stereotype.

The film does a good job of showing the men's gradual realization that things are not what they seem. It doesn't critique the toxicity ... you could argue toxicity wins in the end. But like Crowe's Bud White, L.A. Confidential is more than just a blockheaded muscleman. Meanwhile, it's Basinger who won the Oscar (no other actors were nominated). She's deserving enough, although I might have gone with Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.

I haven't even talked about the recreation of Los Angeles in the 1950s (it's tremendous), and there is plenty of subtext besides the questioning of masculinity if you're so inclined. Yes, this movie is a 10.